First, before we dive into what it all means, let's look at the schedule:
Except when noted, all games will be aired on the Pac-12 Network. Times are approximate and might change pending delays, overtime, etc. Bold indicates games that will/could involve Cal.
11:30: 7 Washington St. vs. 10 Oregon - winner faces ASU
2:00: 6 UCLA vs. 11 Arizona - winner faces Stanford
6:00 8 USC vs. 9 Colorado - winner faces Oregon St.
8:30 5 Washington vs. 12 USC - winner faces California
11:30: TBD vs. 2 Arizona St.
2:00: TBD vs. 3 Stanford
6:00 TBD vs. 1 Oregon St.
8:30 TBD vs. 4 California
6:00 Semifinal #1
8:30 Semifinal #2
6:00: Championship, on ESPN
This could/should end up being the greatest conference tournament in Pac WBB history, because this is the deepest the conference has been in years, if not ever. There are five teams with a legitimate, reasonable shot at winning the entire tournament (OSU, ASU, Stanford, Cal, Washington), and a couple teams with the talent to pull an upset or two (USC, UCLA, WSU). Hell, Oregon, Arizona and Utah have all pulled shock upsets over top 5 teams in this conference. Maybe everybody is dangerous except for Colorado.
For the Bears, the obvious challenge is the bracket. Stanford's upset win over Oregon St. earned the Cardinal the tie-breaker over Cal for the 3 seed. As a result, Cal is virtually guaranteed to play 5 seed Washington in their first game, and it's obvious why that's tough.
Cal has already lost to Washington in Seattle once this year, by two points in a thrilling offensive shoot-out. Cal fans can be comforted knowing that the Bears bounced back to trounce the Huskies in Berkeley, but Washington also has a win over Oregon St. to prove their mettle. With home court advantage, Washington has an advantage that the other top 4 seeds don't have. It would not surprise me at all if they took the entire tournament.
If Cal does get past the huskies, their likely opponent would be top seeded Oregon State. Personally, I would love for Cal to get a 2nd chance at the Beavers, if only on the assumption that Oregon State wouldn't shoot 15/26 from three again. But OSU is still the best team in the conference, and a tougher out than either Stanford or Arizona State. And that still leaves the conference championship game.
There's no denying that it's a tough path. But there is opportunity for Cal as well. Just look:
Current RPI rankings:
Oregon St.: 11
Arizona St.: 17
Barring unexpected upsets, if Cal were to somehow win the Pac-12 tournament, they would probably add three VERY valuable wins to their NCAA tournament resume - wins that would guarantee a high seed and home games at Haas Pavilion when March Madness begins.
Right now, ESPN's Charlie Creme thinks that Cal is exactly 16th on the S curve, which essentially means that Cal is the very last team in his projections to earn home court advantage. That means that Cal's margin for error is very slim. Thus, here are the potential scenarios, and my best guess as to what they would mean:
All of these scenarios assume that 5 seed Washington beats 12 seed Utah, which is admittedly dangerous: One of Utah's three wins came over Washington. That said, Utah is 0-12 this season on the road.
Cal loses in their first game
In this scenario, Cal probably lands as a 5 seed (if they are unlucky, a 6 seed) and has to travel somewhere, likely east of the Mississippi, to a place like Duke or Kentucky or North Carolina. Obviously not ideal, but there are worse fates.
Cal beats Washington, loses in second game
If Cal beats Washington, then loses to (presumably) Oregon State, I think that Cal probably holds on to their 4 seed because they would be adding a valuable win to their resume and adding a loss that shouldn't hurt them much at all. I think that in this scenario, Cal ends up as a 4 seed. But I'm also betting that we're all sweating bullets during the selection show, and if this happens I don't think we can complain too much if the selection committee goes in a different direction.
Cal beats Washington and Oregon State, loses in championship
If Cal goes 2-1 with two high value wins and one reasonable loss, we all sleep easy knowing that Cal will almost certainly be hosting games at Haas, and we start wondering if they get a 3 seed or a 4 seed, and in which region.
Also we probably are mildly frustrated that Cal came so close to their first ever conference tournament championship without winning it, especially since it would likely mean a loss to either Stanford or Arizona State, neither of which is a palatable option.
Cal wins Pac-12 tournament
If Cal rolls through Seattle with three straight wins, that would be awesome. And I suspect it would result in a 3 seed for our Bears. Looking at the current 2 seeds, I think that might be a bridge too far, but it would put Cal's resume almost on par with the resumes of current ESPN 2 seeds like Florida State and Oregon State, so who knows? In any case, I would be thrilled with a three seed.
It all starts tonight, and then gets serious on Friday. Find the time to tune in, even when Cal isn't playing - it's going to be worth it. And feel free to use this as an open thread for any of Thursday's action.